As I step into John Ang’s impeccably decorated work space and apartment, I am fascinated by his meticulously displayed textiles and antique pieces. Ang courteously greets me at the door. He is fit, slight and alert, with the air of an old-school courtier and gentleman. He is also a passionate, walking encyclopaedia on textiles and antiques, holding me in thrall for a four-hour meeting as he walked me through the textile collection for his up-and-coming exhibition, “Splendours of Malay World Textiles”. This unique exhibition, which brings together rare heritage pieces, will run from 24 July to 30 October 2022 at Menara Ken TTDI, Kuala Lumpur.
The exhibition aims to push boundaries in interesting new ways. Firstly, it presents Malay textiles from not only a national perspective, but trans-regional ones. It celebrates Malay culture in showing these borderless connections between countries and their citizens. Secondly, it brings together a valuable and rare collection of pieces. Thirdly, it aims to elevate awareness of these heritage textiles so that we are better able to understand and own our culture. Finally, he hopes for this exhibition to be a catalyst for a seminal work on Malay textiles and its categorisations.
Ang happened onto Malay textiles by chance. An art dealer since 1969, he specialised in art objects made from wood, ceramic and textiles. He says, “I discovered my first Malay textile in a bucket of water! It had an oil stain and so I soaked it overnight in water with a diluted soap solution. The next day, I was excited to see if the oil stain had disappeared. But it turned out that the entire textile had disappeared! Later I found out that it was a Tenggarung textile, which is also categorised as Limar Bersongket.”
By coincidence, he later saw a photo of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad viewing a Tenggarung textile at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur, and subsequently a photo of Sultanah Khadijah Khanum of Johor at the National Museum of Singapore, wearing a western-styled gown made of Tenggarung material. And thus, his journey into Malay textiles began.
Ang strongly feels that Malay textiles should not only be viewed nationally or regionally but also trans-regionally.
He says, “Malay textiles would be difficult to understand if you do not incorporate the wider perspective of the Malay world, beyond Malaysia.”
For example, when looking at Keringkam embroidery, it may be seen widely in West Kalimantan in Indonesia and also Terengganu, Malaysia. This could be due to the Bugis people’s love for it, resulting in them bringing the craft along on their frequent travels.
Another textile that piqued Ang’s interest was a Cambodian silk piece discovered in Sumatera. It was a purely Cambodian-looking piece due to its size of three metres and would usually be used as traditional trousers. Ang however, noticed that this textile displayed a plain weave pattern, which was Malay in origin.
The point of connection could have been in Besut, Terengganu where the Malays, Sumatrans and Cham Malays used to trade. The Cham Malays were renowned for these Cambodian textiles. They could have incorporated Malay influences into these textiles, and the textiles could have ended up in Sumatera as a result of their interactions in the trade centre of Besut.
“I am terribly excited at how the business dealings between these countries influenced their connections and subsequent products. If we view these connections in their entirety, we can then have a truer view of Malay culture, with an in-depth and richer context,” says Ang.
The “Splendours of Malay World Textiles” exhibition will bring together an astounding 650 textiles from various parts of the world. It will be set up in 10 rooms, spanning 4,500 square feet. The textiles have been divided into twelve categories and each will be housed in a specific area, for example, the Songket room.
Ang says, “When you enter the Songket room, you will see Baju Melayu made of Varanasi songket from Uttar Pradesh, India. These pieces were exquisite and Malay royals loved them. They eventually influenced Malay songket. You can see how the Teluk Berantai trellis pattern is adopted from the Indians into Malay songket in this exhibition.”
“On the next wall will be the songket of Sumatera which will also show Indian patterns. These are showier with gold embellishments that aim to highlight wealth and grandeur. On a subsequent wall, I will display the songket of the Malay Peninsula which is more subtle, refined and elegant.”
The pieces showcased are mainly heritage pieces and the oldest item on display dates back to the 17th century. It is a trade cloth from India and filled with holes. Used as a natural dye floor spread or as a wall hanging, these trade cloths are said to have magical properties and are regarded as sacred. They frequently have holes in them as small pieces are cut off and used for healing or to ward off evil.
As Ang researched deeper into Malay textiles, he realised that there was a lack of information on them. He thus proposes recategorising them into 12 main categories to reflect the entire genre and for ease of understanding. The categories are: Songket (brocade); Limar (Weft Ikat); Telepuk or Prada (Gold applique); Sulaman or Tekatan (Embroidery); Pelangi (Tie-dye); Ikat Loseng (Warp Ikat); Tenunan (Weaves of stripes and checks); Siambitan (Tapestry); Cetakan (Prints); Batik (Wax resist patterning); Renda (Lace); and Anyaman (Weaving with rattan or other plant fibre).
Ang says, “Presently, only textile experts are familiar with these categories. It is a shame that we do not know more. In Malaysia, we have the unique Limar Bersongket and Malay artisans are the only ones who can weave it. Why aren’t Malaysians prouder of this? It could be because not many know about it. There is such a rich culture in Malaysia and it is important for Malaysians to know and own it. It is also important to document this heritage and to spread awareness of it, so that future generations may be aware. My ultimate aim is to build a comprehensive archive so that Malays can use this to evolve their culture.”
“Culture is always composed of tradition and innovation, and if we are aware of our heritage, we can find ways to keep it alive, for example, the art of Tekad Suji (embroidery). How can this be revived and innovated on? How can we make this more viable in the market?”
Ang sees his work as lying within a broader context. He says, “I hope to eventually publish all this information in a book which will help people understand Malay textiles better. In this, I am inspired by my peers around the region, who have published seminal books on topics of interest. Examples of this would include Peter H. Lee’s book on Sarong Kebaya. It breaks the perspective of information based on oral storytelling alone, as he also bases his writing on official Dutch, Malay and Chinese records.”
“I am also fascinated by Khir Johari’s book entitled ‘The Food of Singapore Malays’ which changes the concept and idea of Malay food. Johari speaks of Malay history as not just dating back to Melaka but also from the Srivijaya period. I feel that he has changed the world’s concept of what Malay food is. Ultimately, I hope to do the same for Malay textiles with the publication of my book in 2023, and with this exhibition.
The ”Splendours of Malay World Textiles” exhibition will be held from 24 July to 30 October 2022 at Menara KEN, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. Tickets are available at www.johnang.com.my. Prices start from RM10 each for children to RM35 for adults.